“That’s it! This has to stop!” my neighbor yelled as he marched into my yard, a vein seemingly ready to burst from his forehead. I was in my backyard innocently trying to push a Kia Rio out of a mud pit with my Jeep, but he was having none of it.
You may recall that a few months ago, I traded a beautifully-running Oldsmobile Alero for a totaled 2003 Kia Rio. That may sound like a bad deal, but I needed a car to wreck for an upcoming video series. My landlord had just crashed his little econobox and needed a daily driver, so the trade made sense.
After fixing the only remaining major issue with the Oldsmobile—the gauges—I signed some paperwork, drove the N-body General Motors sedan into my landlord’s driveway, and he parked the Kia (which still ran perfectly) in my front yard.
The Oldsmobile then immediately went into service as a daily driver, while the Kia sat for a number of months in my front yard, covered in snow, anxiously awaiting the day that it would be the star of a new show.
But the series still isn’t planned for another few months. After seeing my Kia untouched in my front yard, I began to feel both sorry for it and also curious about its mechanical mysteries, so I walked out front to fire it up. It would not start.
Every now and then, the motor would fire in a couple cylinders, but then it would stall. I checked the OBD codes, and they strangely showed some sort of transmission fault. Starting fluid did nothing, indicating that there was an issue with the ignition system, but since it was 20 degrees outside, and I really didn’t need to drive the Kia right away, I gave up.
Eventually, the weather got warmer, the snow thawed, and I figured I’d give the Kia another chance. I hooked up the jump pack, twisted the key in the ignition switch, and after about five or six minutes of cranking, the little four-cylinder fired up and actually idled wonderfully. Then I made a questionable decision.
There are few things in this world as exciting as driving a car for the first time—especially after it’s been sitting for a while. While I’d technically been behind the Kia for a few hundred yards before trading cars with my landlord, I still knew nothing about this little Korean sedan, and was extremely curious to gain new insights into its general condition.
I let this curiosity get the best of me, and decided to put the shift lever into “D” to take the Kia for a little drive. I wasn’t going to do anything crazy. I just wanted to see how the brakes and steering felt, and how well the transmission shifted from “1” to “2.”
Since the Kia wasn’t registered or insured, I couldn’t drive it on public streets. So, I figured I’d drive it around my backyard. Yes, my neighbor had previously complained to my landlord about my mudding in the yard. He was upset about a late-night test ride in my Willys Jeep in particular—a vehicle that also wasn’t fit for public streets. But with the Kia, I wasn’t going to be driving late at night, and this was just going to be a short drive in a circle. It should be fine, I thought.
It was not fine. As I mentioned before, the snow had just thawed, and my backyard has a drainage problem. The Kia got stuck almost immediately. The single, bald, tiny tire that the engine spun through an open differential didn’t stand a chance against the thick goop.
While having dinner with my landlords a few days later, they graciously asked me if I needed helping getting the Kia out, but I told them it wasn’t really an issue, since I had a beater Jeep Cherokee that I could use to get the Kia out from its muddy prison. Better yet, my brilliant coworker Jason was in town, so he could help me with the extraction.
After fastening a plastic milk jug to my front bumper to absorb the impact and protect the Kia (this, we both knew, was a dumb idea; it popped immediately), I jumped into the XJ, and Jason got behind the wheel of the little sedan.
The Kia would not start. Of course.
I’m still not exactly sure what the issue is, but I bet a quick jaunt to the junkyard for some ignition parts will solve it. In any case, Jason and I hooked up my booster to the car’s battery—a move that did not even require popping the hood (see photo below)—and tried cranking the engine over. Nothing. No crank. No lights. No sounds. Zero.
The jump pack started beeping for some reason, so we tried fiddling with the battery cables and resetting the jump pack. It took us 10 minutes until some combination of wire-fiddling and jump pack-resetting actually sent the starter motor cranking against the flex plate. After 10 or 15 seconds of turning the engine over, I got the engine to fire.
Jason then got behind the wheel, put the car in drive, and accelerated as I pushed the back of the Kia with my Cherokee in low-range. The XJ’s cheap 31-inch tires weren’t bad enough to get the unstoppable XJ stuck, but they weren’t nearly good enough to gently push the Kia out of its hole. The Kia needed a jolt.
So, I told Jason to brace himself, while I backed up and rammed the Kia’s trunk. Still nothing. I backed up farther, gave the Jeep some gas, and continued ramming. Over and over. That’s when my neighbor came out.
I’ll admit that, at this particular moment, Jason and I weren’t exactly our most “sophisticated” selves, but man, that neighbor was pissed. This is wild, because I’d never even met the guy. Somehow, he’d let his hatred for my backyard driving reach a fever pitch before ever even talking with me, and now he was threatening to call the cops.
I told him that I work on junky cars that I like to test in my backyard, as some of them are not registered. (I did admit that I have previously ripped donuts back there for fun.) He told me about how driving in the backyard was causing mosquitoes to breed and fly into his yard. He also noted that the land is now uneven from my driving, such that it has become hard to mow, and the long grass brings skunks into my yard—skunks that he can smell from his property.
“Plus, look at this mud, man!” he said. I looked, and asked him to explain what he meant by that, as I don’t have a problem with mud, which carpets pretty much the entire planet. “The problem is, we’re not animals!”
Anyway, after being called an animal, I got the guy to simmer down, introduced myself, and shook his hand. He eventually got to the crux of the issue. The problem had nothing to do with skunks or mosquitoes, really. He was, of course, worried about property values, and because of that, he wanted to tell me that I couldn’t test drive my cars in my yard.
Whether or not I agree with his rationale, I hate upsetting people—especially if I can easily avoid it—so I told him this was it. I would no longer drive through mud in my backyard. Will this mean that I have to register and insure my cars, and do their initial possibly-sketchy test drives on public streets? Yes. (By sketchy, I mean that they may break down. I’d never drive an unsafe car on public streets.) That’s definitely inconvenient, but I don’t want any trouble with the suburbanite.
Anyway, this discussion unfortunately gave the Kia enough time to stall. Jason and I, despite our copious efforts, couldn’t get the Kia to fire back up. And because ramming the Kia from behind wasn’t working, as the tall Jeep was actually starting to ride up the back of the Rio, we decided to hook a tow strap to the front.
Our initial attempts at trying to loop the tow strap around the radiator support (so we could straighten it while towing the Kia out—a “two-for”) were fruitless. There wasn’t enough space since it had been pushed in against all the engine bits, so we decided to wrap the nylon strap around the front bumper.
Yes, we’d both seen a bunch of YouTube videos where this exact tow location yields disaster, but, to be honest, I’m not sure we cared that much. I gently tried tugging the non-running Kia out of the pit, but the mud was too thick, and I couldn’t get any grip.
I backed up, and gave that strap a yank. Still nothing. I backed up again, pushed the skinny pedal, and let that four-liter Jeep engine roar. Yank! Still nothing. Then I put the Jeep in reverse for another pull, but before I opened the throttle in drive, I went to Jason to make sure everything was okay.
Turns out, everything wasn’t okay. That whole front bumper beam had busted off! This isn’t surprising, as the bumper is designed to be pushed, and not pulled, but I guess I figured it would take a bit more of mud (then again, the Kia’s wheels were turned hard, so that didn’t help, either).
Anyway, now I’ve got this dead, totaled, bumper-less Kia stuck in a big mud pit in my backyard. I pushed the bumper back against the car so it wouldn’t look as broken, but it was no use. The Kia in my backyard is the most pathetic automotive sight I’ve ever laid eyes upon, and it’s got me convinced that surely I’ve reached rock bottom. Again.